Jewish actor Nehemia Persoff looks back on the ups and downs of his first 102 years


LOS ANGELES (JTA) – When actor, painter and writer Nehemia Persoff, sometimes referred to as “the last survivor of Hollywood’s golden age,” was a three-year-old growing up in Jerusalem, he fell in love with his teacher from kindergarten. Desperate to get his attention, little Nehemiah got on her tricycle and led it in smaller and smaller circles until the tricycle and its rider fell.

“I pretended to have been injured,” writes Persoff in his recently published autobiography, “The Many Faces of Nehemiah”. “So the professor ran and gave me a hug. I was in heaven.

Almost a century later, the 102-year-old remembers: “I learned then that I could make people believe my exaggerations and make people accept fiction as truth. I guess I was born an actor.

Now with some 200 stage, film and television credits on his resume, including roles in the screen classics “Some Like It Hot,” “Yentl,” “The Wrong Man” and “An American Tail “, Persoff sits in a comfortable chair. her legs in her home in the Californian coastal community of Cambria, recalling the ups and downs of a busy life.

A 96-year-old JTA journalist was listening to him via Zoom. Adding the ages of the questioner and respondent together gave a total of almost two centuries, corresponding to the longevity of some of their biblical ancestors.

When Persoff was 10, his family left Israel and moved to New York City, nearly breaking the boy apart. He left behind the only friends he knew. Long “bombarded” with Zionism, he felt that his real mission in life was to help create a Jewish state.

Arriving in New York City in 1929, at the start of the Great Depression, Persoff and his parents soon discovered that, contrary to mythology, the streets of America were not paved with gold.

His initial job in an engine repair shop only earned him a few dollars, but he increased that amount to $ 35 a week when he landed a job as an electrician in the New York City subway.

Persoff spent most of his fortune visiting the neighborhood cinema. The rest of his family weren’t so lucky, so when he got home for dinner he performed all the roles in front of an audience made up of his parents and siblings.

Having caught the theater bug, Persoff – thanks to the intervention of a girlfriend – landed a scholarship to the New Theater School of Drama. His first role was that of Karl Marx, for a show attended mainly by members of the Communist Party.

After a lot of makeup work, but not a single line of dialogue, Persoff took the stage. The audience, recognizing the actor as Marx, erupted into a long 10-minute ovation.

His acting career was starting to take off when, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, he was drafted into the United States Army for a three-year enlistment. However, he got lucky and was tasked with forming a company of actors to entertain soldiers in training camps and abroad.

In 1951, Persoff visited his native Israel and even got roles at the Cameri Theater, one of Israel’s most prestigious concert halls, for productions of “The Glass Menagerie” and “Volpone”.

There, he also met his future wife, Thea, to whom he credited “keeping her feet on the ground”. She passed away earlier this spring.

But the visit to Israel reopened an old scar for Persoff – his failure to return to his home country to fight in the 1948-49 War of Independence.

“All my life, I have vowed to myself that if Israel fights for its existence, I will fight alongside my brothers and sisters,” he said. “But just then my career in America was really opening up, so I stayed here. I’m still unhappy that I didn’t go.

“View From My Window”, an original painting by Nehemiah Persoff, was painted by the actor in 2016, when he was 97 years old. (Nehemiah Persoff)

Persoff defines himself as an “actor of character” which means that his role was generally to serve as a foil to the main actor (usually heroic).

“If John Wayne as the hero calmly rides and pumps the other lead guy, the victim has to be a really bad guy to keep the audience on the hero’s side – that means I’ve played a lot of gangsters. in my life, ”observed Persoff.

And he’s perfected that mode of action, with a wide variety of credits playing out gangsters, villains, and other common character types, as well as his fair share of rabbis. Persoff has appeared in countless iconic TV shows such as “The Twilight Zone”, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, “Mission: Impossible” and “Gunsmoke”. He also voiced Papa Mouskewitz, the patriarch of the beloved cartoon mouse immigrant Fievel, through the “American Tail” franchise, spanning four films and several video games.

Almost 30 years ago, Persoff quit gambling after suffering a minor stroke and found it almost impossible to stand for a while. Her last onscreen role to date was in the 2003 HBO adaptation of “Angels in America,” playing a rabbi.

The positive result of this life change was that Persoff lost his heavy burden of anxieties and tensions. Among the latter, he cited the time when he played Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and started acting like him at home, ordering his family and barking at children.

“It took me a while to realize that playing wasn’t living – it’s an art,” he noted.

Persoff’s latest push to change his lifestyle came when he spent a lot of time, effort, and money putting on a one-man show in San Diego. He rented a 200-seat theater, but on opening night only 11 seats were occupied.

After moving to Cambria, he got to know a group of painters and showed considerable talent – and found peace – in his new art form. At this point, he has produced some 250 watercolors, which have garnered much praise and buyers.

Persoff is not religious but, he said, “I’m part of the whole Jewish experience… It’s great to be Jewish.

His unprecedented acting career has taught him a thing or two about life, which he develops in his book.

“I am not exhausting the joys that I have had in my life,” he writes. “Yet there is a price to be paid for everything… My understanding at this point is that the actor shouldn’t have to live the role… Acting is a distillation of certain moments in life, but it doesn’t it’s not life itself. “

But “in hindsight, I’m so happy to have become an actor. Yes, there have been trials, but there have also been moments that are just plain heavenly… Thank you for reading my book. I hope that this is so. was worth it. “

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